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Activists push all-virtual start for Detroit schools amid pandemic

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

Detroit — Less than a week before Detroit schools are slated to launch a new academic year, the activist group By Any Means Necessary led a demonstration Wednesday calling for a virtual-only start to stop the spread of COVID-19.

The group coordinated an “emergency response picket/car caravan” near Dixon Educational Learning Academy, where Royal said members learned staff had possibly been exposed to the coronavirus this week.

Demonstrators hold signs and chant in front of Dixon Educational Learning Academy, in Detroit, September 2, 2020.  The group was protesting after rumors spread of a possible COVID-19 infection at the Academy, which was not confirmed or denied by the school district.

About 10 vehicles processed in the west side neighborhood affixed with signs such as “Protect Our Children, Keep the Schools Closed” and “Virtual only! No COVID-19 Death Schools!”

“Nobody should be required to report to these buildings, because they are not safe,” said Ben Royal, a BAMN member who also teaches in the district. “They cannot be made safe while this pandemic has been spreading.”

Royal said an hourly employee tested positive and had been at the school, which was slated for a brief closure so crews could deep clean, on Monday and Tuesday.

Reached for comment Wednesday, Chrystal Wilson, a district spokeswoman said: “If and when we have a confirmed COVID-19 case, our reopening plan dictates our action. In this case and in any situation moving forward, a confirmed case is affirmed by the local health department.

"If we have a confirmed case, we transparently notify the school community, including faculty, staff, students and parents. At that point, individuals who were in contact with the individual who confirmed positive are likely to quarantine for 10-14 days. At this point, based on this process, we do not have a confirmed COVID-19 case at Dixon.”

She added: “Unfortunately, dealing with confirmed COVID-19 cases is part of school districts’ new reality. … School districts throughout (Michigan) have been managing through this process since they reopened schools over the past two weeks.”

Many schools and districts across the state have chosen remote learning for at least part of the year. Last week, the Detroit district, the state's largest, and its teachers union reached terms for reopening schools.

A four-page Letter of Agreement set the terms for return, including a limit of 20 students per class, and could prevent a strike Detroit's teachers voted to authorize last month.

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said Friday that about 80% of students have enrolled for online learning at home, with the rest choosing to attend school in person. Terrence Martin, president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers, said about 85% of teachers have elected to teach remotely, while the remainder have agreed to teach face-to-face in schools.

A caravan of demonstrators drives past Dixon Educational Learning Academy, in Detroit, September 2, 2020.  Protesters rallied in front of the school after rumors spread of a possible COVID-19 infection at the Academy, which was not confirmed or denied by the district.

Vitti said all 108 school buildings will be open for the start of classes.

Meanwhile, schools will have a combination of face-to-face learners in classrooms with teachers and other students coming in to learn online using district resources.

There will be safety protocols such as daily temperature checks and social distancing.

Instructors who teach in-person and contract the virus while working are entitled to take medical leave until cleared to return to work, officials said. A teacher who is asymptomatic and sent home to quarantine must convert to remote instruction "to ensure continuity of student learning," according to the agreement between the district and union.

Health officials have noted recent outbreaks, including more than 200 cases tied to the return of students last month at Central Michigan University in Mount Pleasant.

Five K-12 schools reported outbreaks last week. Districts weren't identified by state health officials.